No Speed Limit

A pre-med student, an investment banking analyst, a PhD student. They’re all in a tournament. Weeding out the ranks is literally the goal. SEALs are pushed so hard in Hell Week, because the Navy is filtering for those built so differently, they’d prefer to die than not cross a man-made finish line.

Interpersonal competition is a powerful stimulus to adapt and improve. Iron sharpens iron. One of the best reasons to spend time in a highly competitive atmosphere is to redefine what you think is possible.

But there are side effects.

Sweat can blur your vision so much that you lose direction. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. There’s a fine line between doing what’s required and wasting berserker mode on pyrrhic victories. There’s nothing sadder than a shrinking man too worn out and too out of time to rectify his regrets (Johnny Cash makes the already heavy Hurt transcendent when he covers it near the end of his life).

Is it possible to chase excellence without obsessing over your competition? Can you not squander gazes to the left and right? The “internal locus of control” crowd will say “just compete against yourself”. Like racing the best-lap ghost in the Mario Kart time trial. That feels too abstract. You still need others for a clue to what is possible. If I power down my space cruiser and take my first step on Earth by the 12th hole at Augusta, there’s no way I think a metal rod and 3 chances are all I need to put that tiny ball to bed under the flag. I might not even think to try.

The most useful output of competition is not one person or one team’s reward. It’s the collective knowledge of what’s possible that is squeezed out of it. Similar to how the invisible hand of profit allocates resources for everyone’s benefit. It’s not the glory of a record that lasts, it’s the view of yet even higher mountain peaks.

Witnessing possibility is an instance of a broader idea — inspiration. And for that, you don’t need competition at all. Competition itself can just be thought of as an instance of something else — art. You just need Art. Capital “A” Art. Not just anime and naked statues. All of it. Some of it comes with a scoreboard too.

Art is creation but it also creates. It inspires. It’s not, at its core, competitive (notwithstanding the bizarre ritual of giving awards to musicians, with the same few somehow winning all of them despite tens of thousands of artists occupying a frontier of subjective excellence…but I digress) even if we agree that’s one of its manifestations.

A few weeks ago I wrote:

Listen to the Founders podcast. It’s a free EpiPen shot in your ass. For the reflexive ankle-biter, I recognize there’s a midwit objection to this show — “oh it’s all survivorship bias”. This is an obvious observation and completely besides the point. The show is not a recipe. It’s an inspiration for obsessives and people in discovery mode who appreciate obsession mode. The show is repetitive. That’s one of its strongest features. My own writing is intentionally repetitive. There are only a small number of ideas that matter.

One of the most repetitive themes found in the biographies are the subjects’ utter disregard for standards that apply to everyone. Think of school. It’s a one-size-fits-all prescription. It’s meant for the average. Rec sports are the same. If a kid is actually good, they play club.

In basketball, and likely all sports, the obvious distinction in levels is the speed of the game. A full-court press will make a rec kid cry. Listen to an NFL player discuss the transition from college to the pros, they always say the same thing — the game is so much “faster”.

When you compete with others, the salutary lesson of getting whooped is “it’s possible to go faster”. But if you are creating in a subjective domain, there are too many dead spots of silence. The feedback is foggier than the blunt shame of waking up early and eating your Wheaties only to get lapped.

It is from this frustration with self-measurement that I recommend the Founder’s episode on Stephen King’s On Writing. Part biography, part advice.

These are my notes:

Founders Podcast Reads Stephen King’s On Writing (6 min read)

I’ll mention part of King’s story that stood out. He had a mentor named John Gould that reminded [Founder’s host] David Senra of Dr. Seuss’ mentor Capra. Both King and Seuss could tell a big story in a single paragraph. But what is especially interesting is that despite formal writing education, they learned these skills from Gould and Capra respectively. They learned both directly and quickly.

It’s my favorite part of the episode because of how Senra ties this to Derek Sivers’ revelation that there are “no speed limits”. When Sivers was at Berklee College of Music, he meets an alumni, Kimo Williams, who accomplishes what Sivers thinks is impossible — he teaches him 2 years of theory in a few lessons!

Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected. Kimo’s high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me that the standard pace is for chumps, that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects. And this principle applies to all of life, not just school. Before I met Kimo, I was just a kid who wanted to be a musician doing it casually. Ever since our five lessons, I’ve had no speed limit. I owe every great thing that’s happened in my life to Kimo’s raised expectations. A random meeting and five music lessons showed me that I can do way more than the norm.”

Senra pulls in a quote from Steve Jobs:

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

I have written a lot about the role of luck but my view is most succinctly captured by the success paradox. One of the underappreciated forms of luck occurs when someone with even the slightest pang of dissatisfaction with their trajectory is to spend time with a pace-setter. If you had the good fortune of having someone relatable forcefully lay to waste any notion that you are operating near your potential, go thank them. Especially if this happened when you were young (you have gotten to compound that wisdom for longer).

My favorite commencement speech was by a character close to the Moontower heart — Wooderson.

I’ll leave you with lesson #5:

A roof is a man-made thing

“You ever choked? You know what I mean, fumbled at the goal line, stuck your foot in your mouth once you got the microphone, had a brain freeze on the exam you were totally prepared for, forgot the punch line to a joke in front of four thousand graduating students at a University of Houston Commencement speech? Or maybe you’ve had that feeling of “Oh my God, life can’t get any better, do I deserve this?” What happens when we get that feeling? We tense up. We have this out-of-body experience where we are literally seeing our self in the third person. We realize that the moment just got bigger than us. You ever felt that way? I have. It’s because we have created a fictitious ceiling, a roof, to our expectations of ourselves, a limit — where we think it’s all too good to be true. But if we stay in the process, within ourselves, in the joy of the doing, we will never choke at the finish line. Why? Because we aren’t thinking of the finish line, we’re not looking at the clock, we’re not watching ourselves on the Jumbotron performing the very act we are in the middle of. No, we’re in the process, the APPROACH IS THE DESTINATION… and we are NEVER finished. Bo Jackson ran over the goal line, through the end zone and up the tunnel — the greatest snipers and marksmen in the world don’t aim at the target, they aim on the other side of it. We do our best when our destinations are beyond the “measurement,” when our reach continually exceeds our grasp, when we have immortal finish lines. When we do this, the race is never over. The journey has no port. The adventure never ends because we are always on our way. Do this, and let them tap us on the shoulder and say, “hey, you scored.” Let them tell you “You won.” Let them come tell you, “you can go home now.” Let them say “I love you too.” Let them say “thank you.” TAKE THE LID OFF THE MAN MADE ROOFS WE PUT ABOVE OURSELVES AND ALWAYS PLAY LIKE AN UNDERDOG.”

Wooderson ain’t interested in speed limits.

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